Viper by John Desjarlais

My guest today is John Desjarlais. A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series.

His work has appeared in periodicals such as Student Leadership Journal, U Magazine, The Critic, Conclave, On Being, Student Soul, Apocalypse, The Upper Room, The New Pantagruel, The Karitos Review, Dappled Things and The Rockford Review. A member of The Catholic Writers Guild, The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Contemporary Authors, Who's Who in Entertainment, and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

Anne - Welcome, John. Let’s talk writing! When did you first realize you were destined to be a writer?

John - In junior high school I wrote spy novels on a portable typewriter in the basement. They were in homage to all the espionage stories of the day: James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, all that. Of course, the novels were awful but I got the bug. I showed some material to my high school English teacher and she didn’t laugh or criticize but instead gave me a little stack of ‘The Writer’ magazine. I still have them. 

Anne – I’m always envious when I hear about a teenage writer, and even more envious when they mention a mentor. Kudos to you and your teacher! Tell us about your book.

John - VIPER features a minor character from the first book, BLEEDER – Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz. Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last.

Working against time, small town prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe, as many in the Mexican community believe, or, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death?

Anne - So it’s part of a series. What do you enjoy most about writing a series? What part do you loathe?

John - The best part is having continuing characters that you care about and the opportunity to deepen them over a longer arc, exploring their relationships. You don’t need to start from scratch. You already have a cast to work with. A difficulty with it – not something to loathe, though – is keeping track of what has happened before and making sure the characters’ backstories are consistent. In the third book that I’m working on now, I needed to write out a timeline for Selena’s life, so I’d know how old she was at a certain time, when she went to college and that sort of thing. There are childhood incidents I refer to in the second book and so now I’m committed – it’s in print and I cannot undo anything.

Anne – Of all the characters you’ve created, does one hold a special place in your heart? Why?

John - Clearly it is Selena, the fiery Mexican-American who can be both tomboy-tough and tender, an independent Latina working hard to navigate her way in a man’s world and struggling to come to terms with her bicultural identity. She drives a ’69 Dodge Charger and is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol but she also paints and volunteers for literacy programs. She knows when she needs to dress in loud taffeta and hoop ear rings with flashy heels and fire-engine red lipstick and when to wear the charcoal Ann Taylor suit with pearls and pumps and sandpiper gloss - when to be Latina and when to be Angla.

Anne – She sounds like a fabulous person. I can see why anyone would be drawn to her. Any words of advice for struggling, unpublished writers?

John - Don’t give up. Hone your craft. Read, read, read. Learn the business (and it’s changing dramatically these days). Attend a writer’s conference geared toward your genre. Make an appointment with yourself to write regularly and treat it like a job. Think of yourself as a writer. Read, read, read. 

Anne - Where can readers find you online?

John - At me website: They can also visit my blog Johnny Dangerous, plus I'm on Facebook:

Anne – Thank you so much for talking writing today, John. I wish you every success with Viper, and of course, happy writing!

As always comments are welcome and appreciated. Happy reading!

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Kelly Hashway said...

Great interview. Selena sounds like a very well developed character with many sides. That always makes for good reading.

johnny dangerous said...

It certainly was a challenge for me, an Anglo fella, to create a credible Latina. I did a great deal of research for this, and passed along the manuscript-in-progress to Latina readers to make sure I was getting everything right.
John D

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the interview! Best of luck with the whole series, John. I think a series is the way to go in mystery.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...


I've loved write for as long as I can remember. One of my mother's friends wrote poems. She gave me her copies of "The Writers Magazines". I still have them, too.

Your book has me intrigued. How much research did you have to put into writing the story?

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Invariably, writers find their purpose while their young and teachers so often nuture us and encourage our dream. I want to wish you the very best, John.

Anne K. Albert said...

Just popping in to say how much I enjoyed chatting with you, John. Like Kelly, Kaye, Karen and Sarah, I agree Selena sounds like a fantastic heroine.

It's going on my TBR list!

johnny dangerous said...

Karen, this book required considerable research in many different areas. The hardest part was researching whatever was necessary to create Selena and make her (and her family) real. There are several books out that are aimed at Latinas who are struggling with their bicultural identity, negotiating their way between Old World expectations and tradition and New World realities. I read books about Mexican-American culture and visited Latina blogs and websites to listen to their ongoing conversations. I subscribed to 'Latina' magazine (for lifestyle, food and fashion info - I know more about women's shoes than a guy oughta know) and interviewed Latinas. I did more, but this gives an idea of how I worked to make sure everything I wrote was accurate and respectful. There was all the other stuff: firearms, crime scene investigation, forensics, interrogation technique, DEA undercover ops, etc. Selena drives a vintage muscle car so I researched a bit on repairs and tuneups for her Charger. The story has a rich backdrop of Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism so I had to research all that, too.

johnny dangerous said...

Kaye: I agree that series are important. Publishers like them because they develop a loyal fan base - repeat customers. I like a series because I can spend time with characters I've come to like again. I'm working on the third entry in this series now. I feel I have a pretty good handle on Selena as a character and I know a lot about the culture now, so more energy is going into research specific to this story.